Bolivian seamstresses in Brazil rebel against 17-hour days

Jon Martin Cullell

São Paulo, Nov 23 (EFE). – 17-hour days, no days off and a wage of 1.50 reais (30 cents) per garment. These were the working conditions of Dilma Chilaca when she arrived in Brazil. “When you have nothing, you have to keep quiet,” she says.

THE 41-year-old Bolivian seamstress, originally from Potosí, now owns her own workshop in a dank basement on the outskirts of São Paulo, where Andean music mixes with the hum of sewing machines.

After years of fighting precariousness, Chilaca is demanding better working conditions for seamstresses.

“I have learned to say no, the businessmen have to understand that we have a family,” she tells EFE, as her nimble fingers finish sewing 20 pairs of shorts stacked on one side.

Labor exploitation affects Latin American migrants who, like Chilaca, arrive in Brazil without papers and face language barriers and informality.

2023 has seen the highest number of workers rescued from slavery-like situations since 2009 (2,847 to date).

Although the majority of victims are Brazilian, authorities have freed 965 foreigners in the last ten years, including 331 Bolivians, many of them employed in the textile industry, according to official data obtained by EFE.

Chilaca was not “rescued,” she came to Brazil in search of a work opportunity to bring her children from her native country.

Her usual day started at 7:00 am and ended at midnight, but sometimes it lasted until 2:00 am so she could deliver the clothes on time.

If she did not, the owner of the workshop deducted a third of her earnings, while they got three times more for each piece sold to a textile company.

“I didn’t feel tired thinking about my children, but now I say to myself, ‘My goodness, that was a lot of hours,'” she recalls.

Stories of abuse are common in the Bolivian community of São Paulo, which numbers about 100,000 people.

Lidia García, 46 years old and originally from La Paz, worked for months without pay to return to the owner of the workshop what she claimed to have paid for her bus ticket from Bolivia.

Her employer also confiscated her identity documents, claiming that they were a “guarantee” for the payment of this debt.

Meanwhile, García and her husband were forced to share a small room on the upper floor of the workshop with nine other people.

After complaining to the police, they got the boss to return half of what she owed them and ran away in search of something better.

Breaking the cycle of exploitation

Since then, García and Chilaca have been trying to move up in the textile chain, opening their own workshops to sell directly to warehouses, but it is not easy.

“I need capital to create my own clothing line,” says García, who receives about 18 reais for an outfit that can be sold in stores for 150 reais.

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